Merck Manual

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Professional Version

Overview of Lameness in Cattle


Gerard Cramer

, DVM, DVSc, University of Minnesota;

Laura Solano

, DVM, PhD, Independent Contractor

Reviewed/Revised Apr 2023 | Modified Jun 2023

Lameness is a painful condition that affects the locomotor system of cattle and has a detrimental effect on health, welfare, and productivity. It is caused mainly by hoof lesions; it can also be due to joint diseases, traumatic injuries, and neurologic disease.

Lameness is a clinical sign of pain related to the locomotor system resulting in abnormal movement and/or posture. Risk factors for lameness include those related to the environment, management, and individual cow. Lameness poses a severe welfare issue and contributes to growing public concerns regarding the well-being and longevity of cattle. In addition to having welfare implications, lameness causes substantial economic losses in both the dairy and beef industries. In the dairy industry, economic losses are associated with decreased productivity, decreased reproductive performance, decreased body condition, treatment costs, and labor costs, as well as a higher risk of culling, death, and the development of other diseases. In the beef industry, economic losses are associated with decreased performance, decreased market value, weight loss, labor costs related to removing cattle from their pens for treatment, treatment costs, mortality, premature slaughter, and delayed progression to market, among others. Overall, the cost of lameness varies depending on its incidence, severity, and duration.

Most causes of lameness in cattle (70%–90%) involve hoof lesions, although the presence of a hoof lesion does not necessarily result in lameness. Hoof lesions are commonly categorized according to their etiology, as either infectious (eg, digital dermatitis, foot rot, heel horn erosion, interdigital dermatitis) or noninfectious (eg, sole hemorrhages, sole ulcers, or white line disease [collectively termed "hoof horn disruption lesions"], as well as thin soles, toe ulcers and toe necrosis, corkscrew claw, fissures, interdigital hyperplasia, and deep digital sepsis). Lameness that does not originate from the hoof can be due to trauma, arthritis, muscular ruptures, and neurologic diseases. In beef cattle, foot rot commonly accompanies musculoskeletal injuries because of handling, restraint, and transportation. In dairy cattle, the most common hoof lesions are digital dermatitis, sole ulcers or hemorrhages, and white line disease. In this chapter, lameness conditions are broadly classified as either originating in the foot or proximal to the foot.

For More Information

  • Whay HR, Shearer JK. The impact of lameness on welfare of the dairy cow. Vet Clin North Am Food Anim Pract. 2017;33:153-164. doi:10.1016/j.cvfa.2017.02.008

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